Tawdry Tinsel Town by Dr Dave Salmond

Like many people my age, I was born in the 80’s. Whilst this was a bad time for fashion and music , it was, in my opinion a golden age for the silver screen. I was lucky enough to be born and have a few formative years before technology gave us the wonderful invention of home cinema. I have been hooked to film from a very early age, one of my earliest memories was watching Star Wars for the first time one Christmas when I was five and I have been hooked ever since. But to my young mind it was tragically unfair to have to wait another full year to watch it again (for some reason I only ever remember Star Wars being on at Christmas). Then along came VCR and Betamax. Now I no longer was a slave to the programming directors of the BBC and ITV, although I had to wait until after the format wars were over before my dad would part with any money on a video player (media savvy or tight fisted I’m not sure).

Until this point I would get my fix from trips to the cinema or whatever was shown on TV; child friendly films or more often cartoons. The 80’s was awash with family/ child orientated viewing, Disney films were going strong, Jim Henson’s puppets were popping up in film’s like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, not to mention the ubiquitous Muppet movies. We also had out-and-out kids classics in the form of The Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, Monster Squad and the Karate Kid which, after watching, every kid thought they could do kung fu. For the older kids, John Hughes was pumping out teenage angst ridden cinematography like Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles before moving onto the more family orientated National Lampoon series and eventually Home Alone.

With the advent of the video player, all these movies and many more could be watched at home whenever the mood took you. Trips to the video store became a weekly highlight for me; being allowed a choice of one movie at the weekend was an all consuming task, do you take a chance and get something new, hire out Adventures in Babysitting for the tenth time or get that film that everyone was talking about at school? Too many options is sometimes a bad thing. This often led to what seemed like hours deliberating which film to choose in the video store, wondering around with one film in hand but still not entirely sure if that is the one you want. Part of this consideration for me wasn’t always about which title you where allowed to take home that week, it was about the one’s you weren’t.

The introduction of the video player had inadvertently provided a loop-hole to certain film makers in the early 80’s. Low budget, mainly slasher horror movies, could now bypass the film certification board by releasing their films straight to video. These video nasties caused public outcry and eventually stricter regulation of the video market. Although this had been addressed by the time I was at an age where I was watching films, it had left a bit of a cultural legacy. Hollywood had obviously spotted that there was a market to be filled at this end of the spectrum and by the mid to later part of the decade was pumping out 18 rated films at quite a rate. Although 18 rated movies were nothing new, they had become something to aspire towards, pushing the new boundaries and seeing what film makers could get away with under the new guidelines.

So this left me in the video store, clutching my copy of some childish film wondering what those very stylised film boxes were on the top shelves. Knowing that this forbidden fruit was out of my grasp, legally and physically, gave them all the more appeal, even though I knew they were put out of my reach for a reason, be it because they were too violent or had bad language, having to wait until I was eighteen seamed unfair.

This started a new craze for me, to see as many age-restricted films as I could. I no longer cared if they were good films or not, it became more about the age badge on the front of the cover. U rated films that I’d loved became babyish in my eyes, now it became a race between me and my friends down the street and at school to tick off as many 15 and 18 rated films as we could. Being the first kid in class to see the much talked about, over hyped film we weren’t meant to see became a badge of honour. We didn’t care that watching some of these films would scare the shit out of us or maybe warp our outlook on the world (I like to think I’ve turned out ok despite some of the films I watched at too young an age) it was all about the bragging rights of been the first person to say ” I watched The Terminator over the weekend.”

We used many and what we thought were devious and clever tactics to watch these films, taking advantage of lax parenting where possible, sucking up to the older kids down the street, blackmailing older brothers and sisters who’d been caught smoking into letting us watch them whilst babysitting at someone’s house. Sometimes just flat out lying about seeing a film would get you through if you’d overheard enough people talking about the key scenes, all so you could brag about it at school even though you’d never seen it. I would lie, cheat and on a couple of occasions steal to watch as many films as possible. This was my obsession with movies.

I tell you all this because the rant I am about to go on may sound a bit negative and despite all my current misgivings about the state of the film industry today I do still have a love of cinema. It was a big part of my childhood as I’ve explained and even into my late twenties I was still buying DVD’s on a weekly basis, purchasing new titles and replacing my old video collection. I’m not sure exactly when it started to happen, but slowly the number of films that I would watch started to decline and when I did watch a new movie they just weren’t captivating me anymore. I’d laugh less at comedies, be drawn less into thrillers and action films just flat out bored me. For a time I just assumed that this was natural, that becoming jaded towards things was part of getting older. I’d talk less to my friends about new films either because I had no interest in seeing that particular years big blockbuster or more often than not they got sick of me bitching how shit cinema had become. This posed a bit of a problem to me, I was still enthusiastic towards other things from my childhood, so why was my love of film dwindling? I was still finding new music that I enjoyed, I still spend hours in book shops looking for and discovering excellent literature. So why did my passion for film disappear?

I’ve pondered this question for a few years now and while you may disagree with my conclusions, just remember that this is how I justify that it’s not me that’s gotten old it’s Hollywood that’s gotten shit.

The first point I want to raise is the current trend of the PG-13 rated movie, whilst this certification had been around since 1984, it seems to be the dominant force at the moment. I understand that a film maker wants his or her film to reach as wide of an audience as possible but aiming all films at a more juvenile target base in my opinion is the wrong way to go about this. I also realise that this isn’t solely the decision of the film makers themselves but more so the studio’s that produce them. Why make a film that only mum and dad can enjoy, get them to bring the kids as well, more bums on seats, more money. With this attitude of aiming at a younger target audience holding so much sway, whilst good for the money machine, can be very detrimental to a good story. Don’t get me wrong, some children’s films, Pixar especially, write very strong and engaging stories. This is because from the very outset these films were designed and primarily aimed at children, but they incorporate subtle adult themes aimed at the parents, who they know will be taking their children to see these movies, so that everyone can enjoy them. The money men in Hollywood see this and think that the same rule applies coming the other way. If you take a dark, hard hitting storyline that was never intended for a younger audience, the only way to achieve this mass appeal is to take away the darker, more unsavoury elements until it is suitable for a younger audience. This leaves you very far away from the original concept and so the story suffers, the language that the characters use seems wrong, certain motivations and decisions they make, now that they are trapped in a more child friendly world, feel wrong and sometimes don’t fit with the story anymore because certain scenes had to be cut to achieve this must-have rating of PG-13. The argument I’m trying to make with this point is essentially that starting from the bottom and adding more adult elements as you go works, starting at the top and then subtracting them doesn’t.

My next big gripe with Hollywood is the constant rehashing/reworking/reimagining and to making it look modern and to fool you that there not just pulling the same old shit, rebooting (I hate this phrase) of movies you’ve already seen. I could quite easily name you 20 films from the last five years that have been “Reworked for a new generation” because Hollywood is churning them out at a ridiculous pace. Again this is nothing new but the trend accelerated to an absurd speed around the time of the 2007/8 writers strike.

The strike lasted around eight months, but although it is referred to as the writers’ strike, a lot of other professionals in the entertainment industry joined them on the picket lines , including many A list actors. Whether this was a true show of solidarity with the guys at the bottom of the pyramid or a PR stunt is a different matter entirely, either way it succeeded in shutting down the behemoth that is Tinsel Town.

The fallout from all this, is that after the strike was over, the easiest way to get the movie machine moving again was to pluck some readymade scripts off the shelf, blow the metaphorical dust off them and get filming. I’m probably over simplifying this a lot, but to me it’s the only logical way to justify how to the public hardly noticed a total eight month shut down in an industry that can take on average two years to produce a finished product. Plus it gave the big guys at the top a way of punishing the writers by effectively cutting them out of the film making process, admittedly not fully, but you’re not going to engender the best results from someone if you just hand them an old finished script and then only ask them to rework it; most people would just phone it in. Or more perversely the execs at the top might find a writer that loved the original script, but because of this love they then become unable or unwilling to tamper with the work. Either way by skipping or half arsing the first building block of a story driven entertainment medium it is the finished product that eventually suffers. The story.

The last point I want to raise in what I see as the decline of the film industry is without a doubt the strongest part of my argument, and that is the rise of television.

Television has always been perceived as the ugly sister to cinema, lower budgets, a lower calibre of actor and a smaller screen. It has always worked under the “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” philosophy. Whilst this approach has always paid the bills, certain networks have come to the realisation that the only way to compete in a very over saturated market is to up the quality of programming that they are showing. Ok we did have to endure a near full decade of reality TV and countless clones of judge-based shows full of arrogant and talentless nobodies passing harsh judgment on members of Joe Public, but over the last few years that has started to change and we are now in what many people regard is a golden age of television.

I don’t think there is a single defining moment that you could point to and say this is the thing that changed the entertainment landscape, it was a combination of small changes, but to me the biggest of these small changes is the progression of technology. DVD box sets and streaming services have changed the way we watch our favourite shows, now we can watch an entire series in a day if the wish grabs us. The fact that technology has managed to change the way in which we watch television has forced TV networks to up there game. Gone are the days where a TV schedule matters. With the advent of the likes of Sky plus boxes, or their equivalent, people can now record their favourite shows with a lot less hassle then my beloved VCR. Online services like BBC iPlayer and 4oD let people watch at their own convenience. Without this rigid scheduling in place, people now have more freedom and have almost instant access to any show that is shown on a network regardless of where in the world it was first broadcast.

This change in the way we consume TV has shown the television broadcasters that what has always been perceived as one of their biggest weaknesses was all along their greatest strength, and that is run time.

For the most part television followed a tried and tested formula for a very long time. Be it a sitcom, drama or detective thriller with a run time of either thirty minutes or an hour, it didn’t really matter because the formula worked on them all. That is to say that every episode was almost self-contained. Once you where introduced to the main characters of the show there was very little development on an episode to episode basis. The show would start, the story would pan out and everything would be back to the beginning all wrapped up in a nice little bow as if nothing had happened by the end. On occasion some shows would have a two part episode, they would end the first episode on a cliff hanger, leaving the viewer in suspense and having to wait a full week to find out how the story concluded, and to me these where always the better stories because they were more fleshed out. Given the extra time, the characters felt more believable with their choices and motivations. They could take more time to solve the big riddle that would lead them to the bad guys or have the time to ponder a moral dilemma and because of this the stories flowed more naturally, it never felt there was a rush to cram everything in or that bits had been chopped out to fit into the regular time frame. They were essentially mini movies with our favourite TV characters.

So that was how TV worked for a long time, lots of individual episodes with a thin narrative running through them and a double episode to finish the season. And then a show called Twin Peaks came along.

Twin Peaks was an oddity to say the least, the camera work and lighting was a little experimental for TV, designed to put the viewer on edge. But it was the way that the story was told that gave Twin peaks it’s unique style, there was never an easy solution to the mysteries, one would always lead to a bigger one and this drew the audience in week after week. It was a show that wasn’t afraid to take its time telling a story. In fact it wasn’t until pressure from the network when they started to get cold feet in the second series that the original murder was revealed.

Twin peaks was a show well ahead of its time, a reason why it only had two seasons before being cancelled, networks and audiences were still not truly ready for a storyline that had no clear end point in view, but it did leave behind a legacy that is striving today. It wasn’t until HBO commissioned the Soprano’s, almost a decade later, that this format of serial drama was revived and flourished. Thanks to Twin peaks and its pioneering storytelling, we have had shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, shows that have a story arc that lasts an entire season and beyond. These shows amongst others have proven that given the writers enough time to properly develop the characters and their motivations, they can build truly engaging and fantastic storylines that draw an audience in more than a film could ever hope to achieve given the limit of how long a film can realistically run for.

These are what I see as the main problems and challenges facing Hollywood. There are many more that I would like to cover but I feel like I’m rambling a bit by this point. I haven’t touched on the terrible camera work that is the trend at the minute. The stupid shaky cam type films seem to have fallen by the way side thankfully, but we still have the likes of J.J Abrams throwing lens flare into almost every shot and Michael Bay shooting films with so many jump cuts that it can give you motion sickness. Nor have I touched on the over reliance of CGI, the fad of 3D or the constant stream of superhero films.

In conclusion what I want to get across is that I miss good story driven cinema. Hollywood just isn’t providing that for me anymore and I find myself looking towards television more and more for entertainment. If you disagree with the points I’ve made, fair enough, but if you take a look at IMDB’s list of top 250 films, only 4 of the top twenty were made since the year 2000, which to me suggests a slide in quality. Like I said at the start of this rant I do have a love of cinema, but until there is a change in Hollywood, you’ll find me with my feet up in front of the TV.

doctor daveDr David Salmond is 33 and lives in Hull. He has a keen interest in former Eastern-Bloc Europe in that he eats lots of sausages and drinks beers that have unpronounceable names and are served in vases. He gamely joins in with mine and Mr Taylor’s discussions about football despite the fact he much prefers rugby league. On my wedding day he was legless by 11am. He has read more books than anyone in the entire world.

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